For anyone who has ever immersed themselves in the beauty of Madeira Island, it’s not difficult to realise how this little paradise has come to be known as ‘the pearl of the Atlantic’.
Living up to every expectation of an extraordinary holiday, Madera boasts magnificent scenery, mild climate, a cultural home of long-kept traditions and of course, amazing culinary fare.
Local Maderian cuisine is rooted in tradition and takes it’s soul from the peasant history, traditional methods of preparation and cooking are what make the food of the island a uniquely delightful.
In any home grown Maderian restaurant across the island, you’ll find a warm bolo do caco with garlic butter and parsley at the top of the menu. This flat circular wheat flour bread is typical of Madeira and is often shared by the locals with grilled limpets, served straight from the hot pan with plenty of garlic and a squeeze of lemon, before the main meal event of a relaxed dining experience.
Another delicious traditional light bite to start an evening of food and wine, and a ‘must try’ for tourists who want to really taste the island, sopa de tomate e cebola (tomato and onion soup) crowned with a poached egg is the menu choice; or a favourite with the locals is the açorda, a bread-soup made of large pieces of bread, garlic, poached egg, winter savoury and olive oil, with hot water poured over everything. The ultimate Maderian comfort food, packed full of hearty flavoursome ingredients.
The more carnivorous diners are not left behind on the island and will often have a variety of stunning dishes to satisfy the meat cravings, the highlights of which are the traditional espetada, carne vinha-d’alhos, picado and other deliciously grilled meat courses (mainly chicken, pork chops, beef steaks). The espetada is made of chunks of beef rubbed in garlic and salt, skewered onto a stick (or a branch of bay leaves in popular festivals) and left to grill over smouldering wood chips. Appreciated on every occasion is carne de vinha-d’alhos, a dish consisting of small pieces of pork meat left to marinade for at least a day in a mixture of garlic, wine vinegar and bay leaves, before it is cooked in the same sauce. This speciality is particularly typical during Christmas.
Last but not least, we should not miss mentioning the very popular picado, which comes in different sizes according to the number of people it has to feed. The picado traditionally consists of small pieces of beef fried with garlic in a pan, sometimes with the addition of red peppers, served in one big dish surrounded by French fries. Everybody eats out of the same dish with a fork or a wooden toothpick (picar = pick) – an ideal dish to prepare without much effort for get-togethers with family and friends.
Milho frito – delicious deep-fried cubes of cornmeal – is a favourite side dish to accompany a main meat course. As for vegetables, you will find locally cultivated vegetables on the local menus, including carrots, green beans, abobrinha (similar to zucchini), pimpinela (chayote) and peas, usually prepared in a very simple way. Salads are not always part of the daily diet of the islanders, and when they are, they are usually composed of lettuce, tomatoes, grated carrots and lots of sliced onions.
Madera is famed for its long established island fishing tradition, so, naturally, seafood is a regular on the plates of locals. Tuna, espada (black scabbard fish), bacalhau (codfish), gaiado (a regional fish treated like codfish) and potas (similar to a huge squid) are the star of the show in many main courses.
Traditionally, fresh tuna is first marinated in olive oil, garlic, salt and oregano, then fried, and served with milho frito. This kind of cornmeal preparation is very often also preferred as side dish to espada fried with onion. A must-eat is the espada with banana, which is a very successful combination of a soft white fish with a strong tropical flavour. But do also look out for other tasty espada combinations as there are many more!
Codfish is prepared in many different ways. From the delicious bacalhau com natas (codfish with sliced potatoes and cream) to bacalhau à Brás (codfish with shoestring fries mixed with whisked eggs), bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (codfish with boiled potatoes and caramelised onions) or just simply grilled cod, bacalhau is a perennial favourite of the Portuguese.
It does not take travellers to be on the island long to realise that the Madeirans also have a sweet tooth! Everywhere on the island, in all the cafés, snack bars and restaurants, you will find a wide variety of cakes, sweets and desserts. The list is long, but most popular with the locals are the queijadas, a small cake made of requeijão (cottage cheese), eggs and sugar. Also a favourite is the bolo de mel (honey cake) and the honey cookies. Bolo de mel, Madeira’s oldest sweet, dates back to the times when the island was an important producer of sugar and is traditionally eaten during Christmas. Other regional dessert specialities include passion fruit pudding and fresh tropical fruit of all kinds, often served in a delicious fruit salad.